My SXSW 2006 Top 12

My 12 moments of SXSW 2006 in no particular order. This year was dedicated to catching up with the home boys and girls. When an event is this overwhelming-- I really liked J. Freedom du Lac of the Washington Post’s take on the whole thang; he calls it “binge-rocking”—sometimes it’s better to stick with the familiar. Los Lonely Boys debuting their second album at Mexic-Arte Museum following the screening of Hector Galan’s documentary “Cottonfields and Crossroads” which traces the Garza brothers’ humble family roots to the Chicano side of San Angelo and follows them on their rocket to the big time. “Orale” the opening song of their set testifies to the influence of Carlos Santana who over the course of the last year and a half has taken them under his wing, toured with them, and effectively passed the baton of Chicano rock to the West Texans. The gig also debuted the fourth LLB, keyboardist Michael Ramos a longtime fixture on the Austin scene who quit his longtime gig with John Mellencamp to play with Los Lonely Boys. His presence adds an extra layer of groove and rhythm to the band’s already rock solid sound. Immediately after the gig, Ramos strolled down the block to head up his own most excellent ensemble, Charanga Cakewalk.

Alejandro Escovedo playing his new album at Las Manitas. Two years ago, Al was on the same back room stage thanking various musicians for contributing to Por Vida, the tribute album to his songs that helped raise funds to save his life. Al is feeling a whole lot better these days. He’s rested and revived. He’s just finished an album he recorded with John Cale producing that is easily his finest studio effort ever. And his modified ensemble with two cellos, violin, guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards really rocks in a light, ethereal way. I’ve been listening to Alejandro professionally and personally for more than 20 years now and when I step back and look at his creative arch, I’m pleased to say he’s still headed skyward with confidence and grace. And Beatle Bob gyrating to the side of the stage confirmed a suspicion: if you arrange strings just so, they really can put down a rhythm you can dance to.

Bob Schneider and his Bluegrass Massacre at Threadgill’s. After hearing him sing in the morning and talk about the musical he’s writing, and after hearing him rave up Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts with the Scabs, doing the funk thang with the Ugly Americans, and his own thing with Lonelyland (which is the best all-time selling album at Waterloo Records), I finally “got” him at Threadgill’s where he was ginning up a crowd by originally jamming with banjo, fiddle and mandolin like it was 1973 and it was the Armadillo all over again, only with musicianship was much, much better. Yeah, Schneider has never traveled that well, meaning he isn’t likely to become a household name nationally. But if you’re gonna be a local hero, I can’t imagine any place better to be like that than Austin. So there.

Roky Erickson and the Explosives at Threadgill’s. I was driving by Ballet Austin on Barton Springs Road Thursday afternoon when a familiar voice bounced off the walls of the surrounding buildings. Roky Erickson was holding court down the street at his annual Ice Cream Social. Despite the charity behind it, I wasn’t too keen dropping $30 to see him and his old New Wave cohorts the Explosives (Cam King, Waller Collie, and Freddy Krc) and evidently neither were many kids, which is too bad because the young people relate to the Rok. So I parked on the fourth floor of the parking garage across the street and watched the show from my own personal corporate skybox, grooving the afternoon away listening to a very melodic, very soulful rendering of “Creature with the Atom Brain.” Roky is in fine form. May he rock a whole lot more.

Lyle, Joe and Rodney at the Four Seasons lobby bar. If you gotta close out an amazing week of music as seen and heard from the couch, there ain’t better way than to line up Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell, and Lyle Lovett, with cellist John Hagen parked behind. Rodney was fine, exuding pent up bitterness and anger with the song “Sex and Gasoline” dedicated to his teenage daughter and the struggles with growing up female. But this was Joe and Lyle’s show, with Joe debuting the second song he’s ever written about Chihuahuas that was both hilarious (“If I could only teach my Chihuahua to sing”) and serious (the song climaxes with burning lines about the war), and the two closing out with a nod to Woody Guthrie on “I Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This A-Way” that got the whole room singing along. I checked Woody’s lyrics and that line about “I’m going where the women dress like men/and I ain’t going back again” that Lyle sang—he made it up.

“Songs From the Big Sky” Darden Smith’s BBC documentary on Texas songwriters. “Man, I made you sound so smart,” Darden told me when I saw him early in the week. My wife asked afterwards, “What did he mean by that, that you’re not smart?” After hearing the doc, a most excellent telling of the Texas songster ethic, I’m with Darden. He really did make me sound smart. He sounds smart too, which he is. I have long appreciated his songwriting skills and work ethic. Turns out he’s a pretty great radio documentary producer and host too. Listen for yourself . (www.bbc.co.uk/music/southbysouthwest/radio2/schedule.shtml)
Good SXSW coverage as well here (www.bbc.co.uk/music/southbysouthwest)

Kris Kristofferson, Radney Foster, and Richie Furay at the Four Seasons. Kris, the songwriting giant, looked old, complained about being old, and sung old on his early morning turn with Jessi Colter and Steve Bruton. ‘Course he’s lived a million lives already, so that should be no surprise. What wasn’t surprising is how enduring and endearing he is in the Here and Now, going all the way back to “Me And Bobby McGee” The following morning, Radney told me before he went on that Blondie Calderon, the leader of Ray Price’s band and owner of Memo’s restaurant in Del Rio, was his mentor and taught him how to play swing music. He proceeded to swing out the room, getting the whole room to sing Abra Moore’s chorus line on his hit, “I’m In.” Note to Radney: get the hell outta Nashville and come back to Texas for good. It’ll burnish your career. Foster was followed by Richie Furay the cofounder of Buffalo Springfield and Poco, who’s about to release his first rock album in 25 years. Richie’s been living in Colorado and preaching for a living, and it seems to have done him well, judging by the way he beamed, smiled and played with joy, essaying “Good Feeling to Know” by Poco and “Kind Woman” by the B. Springfield.

KT Tunstall, Steve Poltz, Maggie Walters, Newton Faulkner at the Four Seasons lobby bar. My biggest turn-ons for this SXSW. Been listening to Tunstall’s much touted record, but seeing and hearing her at 9 in the morning I can now confirm. This Scot tuff gal with acoustic guitar has got the goods. Dig it or be prepared to duck and cover. Steve Poltz from San Diego is about as wry as they come. There’s something dark down there, but anyone who can make me laugh before nine am has chops. Maggie Walters is primed to be the next big female singer-songwriter to bust out of Austin if Seymour Stein really did hear what he said he heard. Faulkner, a redhaired Brit with dreadlocks, possesses a most unusual style of guitar picking that is all frets and very little strum and a rapid fire manner of talking blues that is the closest thing to rap a white boy folk can conjure. I expect to be hearing and reading more about Faulkner, as well as Tunstall, Poltz, and Walters as the year progresses.

Hellapeno at Headhunters. I blew off finally getting to hear Beth Orton at the radio station and the Go! Team at the record store when my kayaking/biology brother Erik Huebner called. His band, Hellapeno, was playing on Red River in an hour. So I went. How could I not? First time I met Erik I noticed he had a Doug Head bumper sticker; I introduced myself and said, ‘You’re a friend of mine with a sticker like that.’ And he is. Hellapeno is hard rock out poured out of the AC-DC mold by way of ZZ Top. Lead singer Dave Derrick, who can wail and holla far better than he can paddle, scorched the room from his very first Yowl and the twin guitar army sizzled, propelled by Hector Munoz’ thundering drums. Check em out for yourself. www.myspace.com/hellapeno

Thursday afternoon sonic dissonance. Leaning on the balcony of the Austin Convention Center, I was listening to a thrash band from England cranking it out in the party tent across the street when all of a sudden, a booming tuba injected itself into the proceedings, followed by a thumping big bass drum and a bleating trumpet. A New Orleans brass band was marching down the block. With each step the two ensembles bled into each other in a very confusing wash. It was still music, even if it was hard to sort out in my head. John Cage would’ve loved it.

Radio. Channel-hopping between KGSR and KUT made getting around SXSW nothing short of pleasurable. I missed the Refugee All Stars on KUT but did catch the Cambodian band with the Farfisa organ (yes, it did remind me of Joe King Carrasco & the Crowns doing classic Nuevo Wavo) and World Party doing the original version of the meta-philosophical “Is It Like Today?” live in studio right after hearing Eliza Gilkyson’s splendid recorded version of the same song on KGSR. My kinda segueway.

Panelizing. Between a one on one with Mathew Knowles, the Destiny’s Child manager who is the Berry Gordy of the modern era, and a role playing exercise with Tony Wilson, the Factory Records/ Hacienda cat who put Manchester on the map with Mope Rock bands like Joy Division and Scritti Politti and with Ecstasy everywhere, I got my Ya-Yas out. Before going on, Wilson’s prep panel, composed mostly of mainstream industry players, chatted about the state of the biz. The fact that they were very excited about the new Starbucks record label confirmed they were all but irrelevent. I reminded one panelist, Tom Zutaut, that we met in 1985 when he was A&R at Geffen (he signed Guns & Roses and Metallica, among others) and I was managing the True Believers. “You passed on the band when you shouldn’t have,” I reminded him. “But it’s OK. Alejandro and Jon Dee Graham (Austin’s Musician of the Year this year) still have careers.” I’m not sure if Zutaut does. I hate to rub it in, but you blew it on the Troobs, Tom.

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